Savannah nonprofits thankful to hear city wants to cut down fire fee

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - Savannah Mayor Eddie DeLoach held a press conference Wednesday to respond to an uproar from residents about the controversial fire fee.

"We're listening and we understand that plan A was not acceptable, so we understand we need to move on with plan B to move Savannah forward," Mayor DeLoach said during the conference.

That plan B, according to the mayor, means finding a way to cut the city's fire fee by more than a half for everyone. He says homeowners who take advantage of the discounts could pay as little as $8 per month. As it stands right now, a single-family home in Savannah will pay a flat rate of $256 every year. That number is before any discounts. If council approves the mayor's proposal, which would include cuts to some services and staff, property owners could end up paying around $96 per year.

The fire fee does apply to all homes and businesses located inside the city limits, including churches and nonprofits, which do not pay taxes. WTOC spoke with some nonprofit directors who are breathing a sigh of relief. They say they would not have been able to handle the burden of the original fee.

Churches and nonprofits across the city say the news of the fire fee hit them like a freight train. Now, they're hopeful the city is on a better track to a more appropriate financial solution.

"The first thing we thought of when we heard this was, 'Oh my God, this wasn't something we had budgeted to," said Cheryl Branch, Executive Director of SAFE Shelter.

Cheryl Branch is the director of the only shelter in Savannah dedicated to victims of domestic violence. She says any extra cost for a nonprofit is a hardship.

"When you throw something like that at us, that's not a line item, that's not something anticipated, then it's a big deal," Branch said.

During the press conference, Mayor DeLoach admitted the city got carried away with the fee early on.

"We brought too much change too quickly, and should have done a much better job explaining our thought process to the residents and business community," he said.

DeLoach says they originally thought the fire fee was the fairest way to hold the 10 percent of our city that does not pay taxes accountable.

"But, as usual, the devil was in the details, and the details became challenging for many of our residents, businesses, and religious institutions," he said.

While these changes will decrease the burden of the fire fee, the city says this will not be without sacrifice elsewhere. City Manager Rob Hernandez will now look at cutting long-term expenses, such as unnecessary programs, services, and also cutting at least five percent of non-emergency staffing.

"We will not be able to fund some of the projects and operations proposed in the 2018 budget. Belt-tightening affects us all," the mayor said.

While the city figures out those details, Branch says she is impressed and thankful for the accountability shown.

"It must have taken a lot of guts for him to stand up there and apologize, so I accept his apology sincerely and I just hope it goes through," she said.

The city council will vote on this plan at their budget retreat on June 18. They will then set a millage rate at the regular city council meeting on June 21. We will bring you the outcome of those details immediately, but all city residents still need to brace for some sort of fee some September.

The city has not set anything in stone. The exact amount of the reduction is still unknown and will have to be worked out by council. Some city services will suffer in order to lower the fee, but they have not yet been identified. As soon as they are, we will pass that information along to you.

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